General Exam

The general exam, a two-hour oral exam composed of four fields, is taken in April or May of the second year. The purpose of the exam is to expand and deepen students’ general historical knowledge, provide them with the tools to conduct research in history, and prepare them to teach.

Students who are constructing fields for the general exam should follow the guidelines below. Please note: A student may not present more than two fields in a single national history.

These guidelines may also be found in the graduate student handbook.

Guidelines for Constructing Fields

Field Definitions

1. Field definitions should be constructed in consultation with the student ’s advisor and with the other examiners; the field definitions are then approved by the director of graduate studies. Fields may be defined temporally within regions, nations or empires (e.g., Byzantine Empire, colonial Latin America, China since 1800) or thematically or comparatively (e.g., European intellectual history, comparative empires, diasporic histories). Within each field, an encyclopedic knowledge of detail is not expected, but the candidate should demonstrate familiarity with the important problems and substantial mastery of the basic literature in each field.

2. Since the purpose of the exam is to achieve breadth of knowledge, the selection of the four fields should be made with the aim of achieving range across time and space. Students are required to include an early and a modern field (with chronological coverage suitable to the particular regional frame). It is strongly recommended that all students present a field that includes a region of the world beyond their area of specialization.

Please note: A student may not present more than two fields in a single national history.

Field Choices for European History

Students whose main pursuit is European history will ordinarily cover three of the four periods in their choice of fields: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Modern. If one exam field is outside the history of both Europe and the United States, however, fields in two of these temporal periods will suffice.

Field Choices for United States History

Students whose main pursuit is United States history will ordinarily cover fields in the United States to 1815 and United States since 1815. If one additional exam field is outside the history of both Europe and the United States, these two fields will suffice for temporal diversity.

Field Choices Asian, African, Latin American or Middle Eastern History

It is strongly recommend that students in Asian, African, Latin American or Middle Eastern history, in addition to the early and modern fields in their area of specialization, present at least one field outside these areas, or an international or comparative field.

Field Choices Outside of the History Department

Students are permitted to present a field outside the history department comparable in scope to departmental fields.


Coursework in Preparation of Exam

Students prepare for the general exam by taking graduate seminars and a series of History 3010s with the faculty members who will serve as their examiners.

Faculty members may conduct History 3010 either as individual tutorials or as small-group discussions, when several students are simultaneously preparing similar fields for examination.

The four fields are prepared with four different faculty members, one of whom is ordinarily the primary advisor.

Selecting Your Examiners

Students select faculty members at the assistant professor level or above, and must consult with the graduate coordinator if they wish to select an examiner outside the university.


The exam is taken late in the fourth term. Candidates may petition the director of graduate studies for extension to the fifth term. The last possible extension, to the sixth term, requires a petition to the director of graduate studies, and then must be approved by the department. Candidates make examination arrangements with the graduate coordinator.

Evaluation & Grading

What to Expect on Exam Day, Evaluation

A student’s advisor ordinarily chairs the exam committee. The student determines the order of fields to be examined. At the conclusion of the exam the chair asks the student to wait outside the room while the committee deliberates. The student is then informed directly after the examination whether he or she has passed, and the department follows up with an official notification. The grade is final. The overall grade may be requested from the graduate coordinator one month after the exam date.

How am I Graded?

The passing final grades are excellent, good, and fair, and a plus or minus may be attached to each grade. A candidate may fail the exam, yet retain the opportunity to be examined for a second time in the fifth or sixth term of their study; or they may fail the exam without the possibility of taking the exam for a second time. The mark of excellent is rare and represents an exceptional performance. A mark of good indicates a solid grasp of the historiography and problems of each field, with no significant weaknesses, although varying (good plus to good minus) in articulateness. A mark of fair indicates significant weakness in at least one field, and some difficulty in articulating historiography and problems.

Is this Grade on My Record?

The grade does not become public record. It is held internally by the department, not by the registrar. It is used when assessing departmental nominations for Harvard fellowships, but will not be part of the candidate’s dossier for applying for academic positions.